SLOCA Somebodies: Hrotsvitha - SLO Classical Academy
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SLOCA Somebodies: Hrotsvitha

Introducing HROTSVITHA, our November feature for our Somebodies series! A little known but rather influential woman from the Middle Ages, Hrotsvitha is considered to be the first German female poet, the first female historian, and the first western person since the Fall of the Roman Empire to write dramas. What a resume!

By Unknown. Identified as Roswitha of Gandersheim. Wikipedia Commons. Public Domain.

Hrotsvitha was born in a town in Lower Saxony, Germany called Bad Gandersheim. Her parents were nobles and entered her into the Gandersheim Abbey (pictured in this week’s illustration) as a canoness, meaning a woman who follows all the rules of a nun, but isn’t under all their special vows. The abbey allowed her to spend her hours studying in its large library and learning from many teachers. She herself became a teacher there in her twenties and was apparently encouraged to write by others in her community. Of course, she wrote in Medieval Latin.

Left image: Photographed by Misburg3014. File from the Wikimedia Commons. Identified as Bad Gandersheim – Stiftskirche – Westwerk.

Right image: Photographed by Rogengy. File from Wikimedia Commons. Identified as Hrotsvitha memorial Gandersheim.

Her name, which also appears as Hrotsvit, Hrosvite, Hroswitha, Hroswithe, Rhotswitha, Roswit, Roswindis, and Roswitha, means “a mighty shout” and, similarly, Hrotsvitha, in her own writings, calls herself “the strong voice of Gandersheim.” She wrote three major books, the first containing eight legends, the second, her most popular, containing six Christian plays, and the third detailing the history of the ruling family in Saxony from 919 to 965 (called Gesta Ottonis) as well as the history of her abbey.

By Albrecht Dürer. Woodcut from the Roswitha editio princeps. 1501. Wikipedia Commons. Public Domain.

It is from her second work that this quote is pulled. These plays were inspired by and written as a rebuttal to the Roman playwright, Terence. In Terence’s works, women were written as morally corrupt and weak. In Hrotsvitha’s works, which largely center on the lives and experiences of women, women are portrayed as strong, virtuous, witty, and persevering through adversity, as shown by the chosen quotation! Later scholars have attacked Hrotsvitha’s works for not being feminist enough, and it is true that her characters often do fall within the Christian virtue ideals for women during her time, but the fact that her plays portray any female perspective is remarkable for her time. Her works are one of the only portrayals of women written by an actual woman during this period. They also touch on subjects such as complicated marriages, rape, and objectification. Although all of these plays are now known by the names of male characters in their stories, it is thought that a later translator of her works added these titles after the fact. It seems clear that Hrotsvitha’s focus was on the women in her stories.

Today’s quotation comes from one of her plays, called Abraham. This particular play follows Mary, a despairing woman who turns to prostitution. After many years of hardship, she is reclaimed into the Christian community and repents. After these long trials, it is said of her that…

 “Nothing is too difficult for her—nothing too hard. She is ready to endure anything.” 

Hrotsvitha, herself, wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects and even the difficult task of writing as a woman in the Middle Ages. Though her worldview may not have been perfect, her perspective on woman’s ability to endure hardship and suffering throughout the years is valuable for her own time and today!

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